Israel Hernandez-Llach was an 18 year old graffiti artist who was out tagging an abandoned McDonald's early Tuesday morning when he was accosted by the Miami Beach Police Department. He ran, and was subsequently fatally tased by an officer who is now on paid leave.
I want to talk about Israel in the same breath we use to speak the names of Trayvon Martin Marissa Alexander Shaaliver Douse Kimani Gray Jordan Davis CeCe McDonald Oscar Grant --
It's a deep breath we must take to say all these names. I fear we may soon lose our breath.
Once my brother and father went back to my Hampton Roads to find our family. They visited the site of the Turner plantation -- the revolutionary Nat Turner was my great-great-great-grand something -- and historians gave them dirt to hold, as if it might bring them closer to our family ashes, as if dirt does not just fall through the fingers. My brother and father were told that every time we run for cover at threat of the summers' hurricane coming up the southeast coast to the Mid-Atlantic, up from the Caribbean, out of the ocean, off of West Africa, we are running from our own ancestors. Those winds, they said, are the exhalation of our thousands of dead relatives, returning with rage to haunt the landscapes that hold captive their ransomed bones.
The exhalation is growing stronger; it is building. (I dream of the Dream Defenders in Florida, of the Dreamers recently released, of Dignity and Power in LA, and more.) There is an ocean of rage trembling underneath America's concrete. There is an ocean of black and brown faces that is being parted, over and over and over again: continually disrupted family structures and kin systems that are forced to rearrange and cope anew after each lock-up, each death. There is a tsunami of ghosts, some as old as 600 years, and they are coming for us.
When I say the name Israel Hernandez-Llach, I am calling to all my kin. I am calling to my artist-people, many of whom are people of color (but not all), many of whom are young (but not all), many of whom have experienced running from the state (but not all). I am troubled by Ben Davis' proposal in his new collection of essays that "the predominant character of [the contemporary art scene] is middle class," despite the poverty most of us live in. I am disturbed by artists' lack of mobilization around the proposed 49% cuts to the NEA, the only federal funding stream for the arts, which is already limping along only by the grace of a pathetic $.06 per capita in taxes. I am concerned by our inability to connect the dots here: many of us are perpetually employed as "teaching artists," a job vastly different from "art teacher," in part because in our post-No Child Left Behind landscape there are almost no more "art teacher" positions to be filled. The art classroom was long ago converted to the JROTC room or study hall or some equivalent, and now many of us find work as low-wage contracted laborers who take on woefully under-resourced and over-capacity after-school classes fortified with nothing but some donated construction paper and juice boxes.
And whether or not we ever were Israel Hernandez-Llach (many of us were), we all can recognize Israel as our student. He is the kid who actually comes to class willfully, or he is the kid who is court mandated to come to class and finds he likes it, or he is the kid who comes to class because he has nowhere else to go and though he sits in the back and doesn't speak his sketchbooks read like magic. He is us or he is the kid across from us, but either way we both show up to a mold-infested cement room 2x a week for 2 hours at a time to make art together. And far too often we, as teaching artists, are charged with the job of saving him from himself, which we fail to recognize means saving us from ourselves as well. Because the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), with its meager resources, can only partially fund the non-profit we are employed by, our ED splits her time seeking grants from Ford and Philip Morris, who also have a longstanding partnership with our city's police department. And because of that -- and because of so many other things, the same things to led to an 18 year old lying dead on a sidewalk while Miami Beach police chuckled over his body -- we are also complicit in a kind of violence. Whether we are Israel or we teach Israel, our stated role is to steward Israel as a member of an "at-risk" population -- though, beyond state violence, he is at-risk of little else besides being an artist with limited resources. Much like ourselves.
When I say the name Israel Hernandez-Llach, I am calling to my artist-people to resist what Rob Horning and Ben Davis identify as the tyranny of "limiting authentic creativity to proven professional artists." At the end of the day, the "proven professionals" (employed as we are as laborers without adequate compensation) are an iteration of Israel. Or he is an iteration of us. We must understand with whom we are aligned = -- both by our own volition, as well as in the eyes of the state/capital. Israel was running from cops with tasers, or he was running from representatives of the state/capital with the power to stop his life, and we should understand that we are, too.